It seems to me that many gardening folk are quite intimidated by the Latin names of plants. I’ve encountered it in stories and among my gardening friends this snubbing of plant scientific names as if they were of little importance. I feel like this is a defining factor that separates the horticulturalist from the gardener. As a person who began as the gardener (and will always be), I am proud of my ability to look at a plant and know its full name. This is what people tend to notice about me and decide that I am different than they are. I am no longer a gardener in their eyes, but a horticulturalist. I always feel somewhere in between for many reasons. However, when it comes to understanding a plant’s botanical name I think it highly important and should be shared by everyone. Your awareness changes because you learn so much about a plant you’ve just seen for the first time or not seen at all by simply knowing its Latin name. I realize this may threaten a few people, but after you hear my story of how I came to understand these impossible to pronounce let alone spell, curious words, you may think differently.
It was the first day of the course Plant Identification and Use and I was really excited. I had been looking forward to this class. I knew there more plants out there that I did not know, and this was the place where I would learn about them. As my professor handed out the syllabus he discussed what would be required in his class. I believe all of us looked up in disbelief when he said, “You will be given a quiz every week on 10 plants, they may be the ones we discussed the week before or I may quiz you on plants that we spoke about in previous weeks as a review. To receive full points for each question you must have written down from which family the plant resides, genus, species, cultivar if there is one, variety if there is one, and they all must be spelled correctly.”
My excitement immediately turned into fear. This was going to be a challenge. Like everyone else I did poorly on the first one because I had no idea how to study for such a quiz. I realized that it was important to write down every thing he said about each plant. If he said that the leaves looked like Frito Lay chips (Sand Live Oak), I wrote it down. “The branches of this plant tend to occur at 45 degree angles,” (Helleri Holly) into my notes it went. By the way, the week we discussed hollies was absolute torture. You try telling the difference between one shiny leaf green bush from another. Things like, “has yellow margins on leaf” or “leaf margins curve and point downward” were my only details that would help me to identify it correctly.
Not only would he give us plants that were so similar it was difficult to tell them apart, he would have us walk far out into the parking lot to identify a pathetic looking shrub on its last leg. It was even harder to identify a plant when it was sick. Every one of us scratched our heads and thought, “Is that a boxwood?” Even the easy ones became difficult because he was so determined to trick us. During these really intense quizzes the competition ran deep. The worst fear we all had was going completely blank. You could stare at a plant for 10 minutes and still not know what it is. When someone did come up empty it was clear by their facial expression; ultimate defeat. If someone turned in their slip of paper quickly, it was likely that their answer was correct. Whoever the person was (many times it was me) they received dirty looks because to everyone else it seemed impossible to survive one of these things with a decent grade.
Everyone had their own method of studying for these brutal quizzes. An hour or so before class students would be standing in the greenhouse or out in the garden either alone or in groups of 2 or 3 testing their identification skills. Fortunately for me many plants I did know, but the names were the real challenge. After flunking a few quizzes I felt it was time to invoke a fool proof studying method. The keys to my success were this: I would create a Power Point slide show that included a picture of the plant and any random identification clues on one slide and then the next slide would have all of the names I was required to know. I called them my computerized flash cards. I learned quickly that saying them aloud was not enough; I had to actually write down the answer before I would allow myself to flip to the answering slide. I would not stop this process until I got each one of them right. Then the day of the quiz I would write each name down ten times each. All of this was very time consuming, but I was determined and by midway through the semester I was getting full points for each quiz. My classmates hated me, but I didn’t care one bit. You always knew when you had the right answer when our professor would say your name and ask, “Okay Darlene, what is the name of this plant?” These small victories were more than enough to justify the time I spent to learn them.
After my college career was over the real test began. How was I ever going to remember all of these names? The truth is that I don’t remember all of them and I probably never will. Every now and again I might recall the family of the plant, the species more often, but almost always I can say the genus of the plant. Every time I walk through a garden I’m constantly quizzing myself to see if I still retain these skills. I’m sure this might annoy bystanders, but it’s my way of keeping my hand in. You might be thinking, “So what was the point of enduring through all of those wretched quizzes if you can’t even call them out verbatim today?” This was the thought by many other students at the time I took this course. What could you possibly learn from this madness? I will never use it. On the contrary, I do use it every single day. My experience of learning all these difficult names cast a bright light on my view of horticulture. It suddenly made everything seem connected. If you just know the name you can trace it back. The name tells you the plant’s story. For instance, Camellia comes from the name Georg Joseph Kamel who was a botanist that this plant was named in honor of. There is no letter “k” in the Latin alphabet. Sometimes the plant has a species name that tells about a feature of the plant. Such as alba means white in Latin, therefore, Baptisia alba has a white flower. Coral honeysuckle’s Latin name is Lonicera sempervirens, sempervirens means “always green”, which tells that this plant is considered an evergreen. Lastly, Hydrangea macrophylla, this is a hydrangea that has a big leaf, “macro” “phylla.” I do not know if this is the lesson that I was intended to learn, but this is what I have taken from it. For me, it gives an inside view of a world that can often times be complicated.
You may still feel that these names are unimportant, but I find it to be a clever way of revealing a plant’s history. I am always fascinated by history and almost every plant has a long story to tell. So if you see me muttering to myself in a garden do not be alarmed or threatened by my knowledge…it’s been earned through much hard work. Rest assured I can point at any boxwood and say, “Buxaceae, Buxus sempervirens.”